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Energy Secretary Steven Chu met with representatives of the FutureGen Alliance on Monday, strengthening the prospect that the group’s low-carbon coal-gasification project could be revived.

Plans to build a power plant featuring integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) technology and carbon capture and storage (CCS) hit a wall in January 2008 when the Bush administration withdrew support, citing cost overruns. Those concerns have since been exposed as an artifact of specious financial accounting that overestimated the cost of the plant by $500 million.

Those involved say that FutureGen may now be far more politically palatable and expedient. With five years of development already completed, they say that FutureGen is positioned to quickly advance two of the Obama administration’s top goals: economic stimulus and reduction of carbon emissions. “You have a project here that is shovel ready, and with the advancement of technology and importance of CCS, it’s very worthy of a large government infusion,” says Nick Akins, executive vice president for generation at utility giant American Electric Power (AEP), a member of the FutureGen Alliance.

Stephanie Mueller, press secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy, issued a statement after Monday’s meeting leaving no doubt about Chu’s interest. “Secretary Chu believes that the FutureGen proposal has real merit,” Mueller said. “In the coming weeks, the department will be working with the Alliance and members of Congress to strengthen the proposal and try to reach agreement on a path forward.”

If the project is revived, it will have plenty of company internationally. Three similar IGCC projects figure among a dozen schemes that European leaders last month deemed eligible to compete for €1 billion in stimulus funds set aside to support commercial-scale application of CCS in coal-fired power plants. Of those projects, six will be selected to receive funding. Meanwhile, a consortium of Chinese power generators has initiated construction of the GreenGen project, which was inspired by FutureGen.

FutureGen remains attractive because IGCC plants that capture and sequester CO2 are expected to offer one of the cheapest ways to achieve carbon-neutral power generation by 2020. Generating a megawatt-hour of power with CCS-equipped IGCC would cost $99 to $119 in 2020, according to European Commission cost estimates released this winter. That beats their estimates for the price of power from conventional coal plants with CCS, natural-gas generators with added CCS, and solar thermal power. (The cost of generating power from offshore wind farms was harder to predict, with estimates ranging from $86 to $152 per megawatt-hour.)

The only problem is that generating power from coal plants without CCS could be cheaper still. For such plants, the European Commission economists added a $54 charge for every ton of CO2 produced, to cover the cost of buying carbon credits under Europe’s cap and trade program. But the economists estimated that even after paying this added cost, conventional coal plants would still produce power more cheaply than plants burdened with the energy-intensive process for capturing CO2 and piping it to an appropriate underground storage site.

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Credit: FutureGen

Tagged: Business

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